Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld IV’: Chapter 12

In the twelfth chapter of Judgment Day, we discuss what counts as evidence in scientific theory. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Science of Discworld IV. 

I think I’ve said a variation on this before, but I dig that these Science books are getting me to rethink very, very basic things that I thought I understood. Chapter twelve largely unpacks the notion of evidence and scientific theory. And while this series has addressed theory plenty of times before, it hasn’t done so quite like this. Why does the world of science use the term “laws” in a way that doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in legal/political circles? How is something a law if it isn’t something that applies in every situation and context? Well, there’s a fantastic definition of the concept of a “law” early in the chapter:

What we call ‘laws’ seem to be recurrent patterns in the physical world, which we can approximate very closely using mathematical equations, in limited contexts.
That summary is just a single sentence! Incredible! Within it, there’s room for something vital to scientific theory: change. Because maybe the patterns stop being recurrent or they disappear entirely. Maybe we someday are unable to approximate it with equations. And there are contexts where the law doesn’t apply! All this is wonderful, as change is a good thing. I also think that, in general, the authors are optimistic about science and its applications, but I also recognize that some of my cynicism comes from the time I’m living in. There’s so much anti-science these days, and then there are people working within the scientific community who are gleefully biased, twisted “evidence” to their own end. But at heart, I agree with Jack and Ian: scientific laws should be for the kind of rules that are “deepest and best supported,” and they also should be immensely malleable. However, a point was made!!!

But people like certainty, and many seem unable to understand why informed doubt is a strength. This opens up a huge opportunity for the storytelling ape, who insists on courtroom drama and the struggle between prosecution and defence.

This is referenced in the final line of the previous chapter. The people of Ankh-Morpork were more interested in the fight than the actual results of the tribunal. And look at the three examples the authors provide! All of those issues were spun into ridiculous dramatic affairs, and more often than not, actual evidence was immaterial to any real decisions made. Shit, that climate change example using Richard Muller’s about-face on his own skepticism feels so strange to read in 2020. (Still feels weird to type that year, y’all.) Because that’s what should happen when we are confronted with the reality of climate change! We should publicly renounce our previously bad takes and policies! And instead, we’re all living in an existential hellscape in which our world’s livability clock is ticking down and… well, you get the point. 

So, let’s talk about the Higgs boson again! I actually think the pianology analogy was brilliant. I understood the experiment way better this way than in the previous chapter that addressed the LHC? Seriously! In particular, I got the whole way of testing for the presence of the Higgs boson by seeing what else was there. (Or what company it keeps.) Plus, lots of wordplay, so that was a bonus. But the greater point at work throughout this chapter is that the “truth” is hard to come by. We’ve basically proven that a Higgs boson exists (there might be four more), and there’s a basis to move forward. But scientific laws are susceptible to exceptions, and THAT ISN’T A BAD THING.

I admit to feeling a bit lost once the chapter got into quantum mechanics and Ohm’s law, though I think I understood the general point of why they were included here: Humans have a tendency to resist things that are not easily explained or organized, and that happens a lot when we are missing new information, information that we didn’t know how to observe. (Like quantum mechanics without chaos theory.) All of this is—I’m guessing here—a direct lead-up to what is going to happen at the tribunal. What sort of “evidence” is going to be presented? How will the Omnians ignore it or manufacture their own? That’s what this seems to be building up to, right?

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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